Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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Nine Innings with Andy Strasberg

March 22, 2012

I received an advance copy of Baseball Fantography just as I was finishing the recent series on Cardboard Gods that had been inspired by a photo on the Fantography™ website of Padres pitcher Dave Freisleben and Topps photographer Doug McWilliams. I am dipping into the beautiful book slowly, savoring it. My favorite photo so far is one of Lou Brock in a leisure suit shaking hands with a couple 1970s yayos, one of whom is in a cutoff Black Sabbath T-shirt. And then there’s a section that expands on the “making of” photo of McWilliams snapping the baseball card portrait of Freisleben. Many more images from the 1975 Padres photo shoot (including one of Tito Fuentes with his “Tito” headband) surround an essay by none other than Doug McWilliams, the man behind many of the images that, weirdly, joyously, anchor my life. Baseball Fantography would be worth the price of purchase for that section alone, but the whole book is spilling over with colorful images from the beating heart of the game.

The author of Baseball Fantography, Andy Strasberg, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book and about his long and eventful life in baseball. 

1. I’m really looking forward to the Baseball Fantography book (due out April 1, 2012). It seems like a book that needs to exist, and one that will help highlight the unique voices of individual fans at a time when the big business of baseball is tending to flatten out and obscure those voices. What was the key moment in the development of the idea for the Fantography site and the book? When did you say to yourself something along the lines of “this idea has to be done, and I have to do it”?

1997 was the year that I came up with the concept and called Marty Appel who agreed immediately that it was good idea.  Our plan was to have fans send their originals to a PO box and we would have them copied and then return them.  We both agreed that it would not work because people would not risk sending their treasured photographs in the mail for the fear of it getting lost. Then in 2000 I thought that fans with photo could go into Kinko’s and have them scanned and emailed to me . . . but that too was a lot to ask of fans. Then in 2008 I felt that there were enough home scanners and people using digital photographer that they could do it from their home and I was right.

2. I know you’ve spent your whole life around the game, first as a supremely dedicated fan and later as a vice president for the Padres. Some would be tempted to assume that you’ve “seen it all.” In gathering the images for the site and the book, what photo most surprised you, and why?  

I LOVE the snapshots of players before they enter the ball park.  I have hundreds of snapshots of players walking down the street as far back as the 1940s. I can only imagine how excited a fan was to capture a photo of a player in street clothes walking down the street in Brooklyn on the way to Ebbets Field.

3. I believe that in your work with the Padres from the 1970s to the 1990s [Strasberg was the vice president of marketing for the team], you were involved in many promotional events. What part, if any, did you play in Kurt Bevacqua catching a ball thrown from the top of a building in downtown San Diego? What can you tell us about that immortal day? 

I was given credit for the idea but actually adapted the concept from the 1908 Gabby Street Washington Monument event. My favorite part of setting up the event was that I asked permission from our GM Jack McKeon who said he was fine with it as long as Dick Williams our manager approved of it. So I went to Dick and asked him. He said it was OK and then I warned him that Kurt could possibly get hurt and Dick didn’t pause for a second and said, “I know.”

4. Also, when Bevacqua came to the Padres, he had already featured in one of the greatest moments in Topps baseball cards as the 1975 Joe Garagiola/Bazooka Bubble Gum Blowing Champ. Did you ever witness any residue of this feat? I’m praying there are stories of young gunslingers constantly challenging the weary champ to bubble gum blowing duels. Short of that, any other anecdotes about Bevacqua would be greatly appreciated.

I never saw any one challenge Kurt in a Bubble blowing showdown.

One of my favorite “Dirty Kurt” stories happened during the 1984 World Series. We were in Detroit for game three and I was in the dugout just before introductions. Kurt bet me $10 that he would purposely slip coming out of the dugout.  I told him he wouldn’t and the bet was on. His name was announced by the stadium PA and he tripped on the top step and then turned around and shouted at me that I owed him ten bucks.

5. I first became aware of the amazing Fantography website when a writer, Greg Hanlon, let me know about a particular photo on the site. It’s the one that you took of Doug McWilliams’ snapping the portrait that would appear on Dave Freisleben’s 1976 card. For someone like me, who has put such importance on the baseball cards of the 1970s, it is an amazing moment, a singular glimpse behind a magical curtain, and I thank you for capturing it. What are your memories of that moment?

I could not use a flash so all of my photos came out dark because of the shadows. I also tried to capture the exact moment that Doug shot his photos and from an off center angle. I knew that I wanted to capture the exact moment a baseball card photo was being born.

6. It seems from looking at the 1976 Padres cards that several photos may have been taken that day. Do you recall whether that was the case, and if so, can you give us some sense of how the photo shoot proceeded that day? Was there a lot of waiting around and/or bored horseplay? How long did McWilliams generally take with each of his subjects?

Doug took perhaps less than 3 minutes with each player but sometimes waited as long as 20 minutes waiting for the next guy.  The entire shooting process took hours.

7. What did the players think of the baseball card photo shoots?

Most enjoyed it, others seemed to be somewhat bothered by the distraction and interruption of their spring training routine.

8. I love Doug McWilliams’ work. As someone who obviously also has a knack with baseball photos, what you can tell us about Doug McWilliams as an artist from what you saw that day or from other experiences with him?

Doug is one of the nicest and classiest guys in baseball. He’s kind, low-key and very considerate. We became friends quickly and have remained so after all these years. A baseball writer told me after I got my job with the Padres that even though he knew I was a collector of baseball memorabilia he said that the best thing I will collect will be the friends I make. At the time I thought he was crazy . . . but after 20 plus years he was right and Doug is one of those cherished friendships.

9. In addition to your work in the game and as a baseball historian and author, I believe you are also a passionate collector of baseball memorabilia. What piece from your collection would you be most reluctant to part with, and why?

When I was 17 years old Roger Maris gave me one of his bats in 1965. It was a confirmation from my childhood hero of a promise he made to me earlier that season. At that point it was the greatest day of my life!

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When Bears Walked With Angels

June 7, 2011

My book on the 1977 film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is officially out today. In honor of those sequelized Bears, I thought I’d share one of my favorite pictures ever, apparently from a publicity photo shoot around the time of the film’s release. Seeing Ogilvie with an angel on each arm makes me think there might yet be hope for the world.

 

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Free Beer Tour begins tonight

June 1, 2011

 

If you’re in the neighborhood of Naperville, Illinois, this evening, come on out to Anderson’s Bookshop, where Lagunitas will be provide the beer, Pete Nelson will read from his hilarious and moving novel I Thought You Were Dead, David Anthony will read from his blistering Sal-Bando-haunted page-turner Something for Nothing, and I’ll read from Cardboard Gods.

 

For more info, please see Anderson’s Bookshop’s event page.

 

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Book Cellar reading tonight (5/5)

May 5, 2011

The image at left, from one of the great live albums, has little to do with the day I have ahead of me, except that I’ll spend some of it reading Keith Richards’ excellent recent autobiography Life and listening to the Stones, and then tonight I’ll be “live, in concert.” I don’t think any Ya-Ya’s will be involved, but I’ll be reading from Cardboard Gods tonight at the Book Cellar, a great independent bookstore here in Chicago (see full listing for the event below or on my “book tour” page). The event will also feature Billy Lombardo, Jonathan Eig, and  James Finn Garner, and is sponsored by Goose Island Brewery. Admission is free, but please note the following from the Book Cellar’s page for the event: “You WILL need to RSVP if you want to attend. E-mail us (words@bookcellarinc.com) or call (773-293-2665) to put your name on the list. (It’s free!)”

THURSDAY, MAY 5, 2011
7 PM CST
The Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago IL 60625
Dudes Night” (Josh Wilker, Jonathan Eig, Billy Lombardo, and James Finn Garner)   
Free and open to the public

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Here’s an early clip of the Stones chugging through a Chuck Berry number and then “Tell Me.” There are glimpses of some members of the rising global army of screaming, weeping teenage girls that, when amassed in large numbers, terrified Richards, according to his account of those years in his autobiography. (Three of the these girls are brought onstage at the end of the clip.) At one point around this time, after a concert, Richards was set upon by a battalion from this army that in communal blind ecstasy battered him unconscious.

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Bullpen Cart

April 22, 2011

It’s gray and rainy today, and I wish I could spend the day riding around as a passenger in a baseball-headed bullpen cart. Maybe a baseball-headed bullpen cart version of Neal Cassady, much less frenzied and wild-eyed than the original, prone not to blazing 100 mph down rural roads shivering with hunger and amphetamines and roaring about Nietzsche but instead to puttering around slowly and aimlessly while gazing off into the middle distance, will pull up outside my window in a bullpen cart and bleat the little horn, and I’ll go out and join him for a day of mild, pointless bullpen cart meandering.  

Probably this won’t occur, as the era of the bullpen cart has come and gone. Still, I can at least ponder the bullpen cart, as I am wont to do. Along those lines, I have an article on Baseball Prospectus today that (among other things) touches glancingly on my love of the long lost on-field conveyance shown here, apparently on the brink of failing to save a couple Mets from the indignity and strain of walking.

For more on the history of the bullpen cart, see Paul Lukas’ 2007 article on the subject. And while you’re meandering bullpen-cart-style around the Internet, you could also check out a couple of nice reviews of my book that have just been posted, at Baseball Reflections and Batter Chatter, respectively. Also, last week, Joe Bonomo (author of a book on AC/DC’s Highway to Hell that is very high on my “must read” list) posted an interview with me and Dan Epstein (Big Hair and Plastic Grass) at his site No Such Thing As Was.

Finally, I have updated my “Book Tour Page” with info on upcoming events, most of which will feature FREE BEER. (Has there ever been a better use of ALL CAPS than the one used at the end of the preceding sentence? Please allow me the pleasure of using it once again: FREE BEER.) No word yet on whether this FREE BEER will cause the literary gatherings to devolve into chaotic homages to 10-Cent Beer Night. I also have yet to figure out if I’ll be able to travel from Chicago to Naperville to Milwaukee to Oakland to Boston to Austin and back to Chicago in a baseball-headed bullpen cart.

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Opening Day Starting Nine

March 31, 2011

Today the book industry newsletter Shelf Awareness is running a little Q&A with me that includes a question about my top five authors that I expanded (following Charles Bukowski’s lead) into a starting nine. Here’s my opening day batting order:

1. Denis Johnson, SS (dazzling in the field; .297/.398/.412)
2. Anton Chekhov, 3B (always makes perfect contact; .313/.402/.498)
3. Jack Kerouac, CF (think Fred Lynn in ’75 but forever; .325/.413/.545)
4. J.D. Salinger, RF (glove has poems scribbled on it; .286/.374/.529)
5. Bruce Jay Friedman, 1B (hilarious infield chatter; .302/.397/.502)
6. Frederick Exley, LF (erratic and powerful; .264/.342/.512)
7. Charles Schulz, C (always there when you need him; .282/.367/.423)
8. Raymond Carver, 2B (key when things get rocky; .272/.372/.402)
9. Franz Kafka, P (baffling, overpowering stuff; 2.08 ERA)

What’s your starting nine?

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For more of Me, if you can stand it, check out an interview today at the New Yorker book blog The Book Bench; a new music-tending interview at Rock Town Hall; and a new podcast conversation at Baseballisms.

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Cardboard Gods: the liner notes

March 15, 2011

Cardboard Gods is officially out in paperback today. Algonquin Books posted some news about their release of the paperback (including a chance to get a free copy) and also included my “liner notes” for my imagined soundtrack for the book, with thoughts on songs by, among others, John Lennon, the Grateful Dead, Leif Garret, The Ramones, and the band whose album cover (shown at left) fascinated me as a child as much as any baseball card:

 Algonquin Books: Cardboard Gods Publication Day and Liner Notes

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Cardboard Gods: the paperback!

March 7, 2011

The “According to the Gods” 2011 team-by-team preview continues today with a stomach-churning look at Lou Piniella and the New York Yankees, but I wanted to also mention the rapidly approaching March 15 release date of the paperback version of Cardboard Gods, published by Algonquin Books. [Update: the book seems to already be available in at least some stores.]

I should be roaming the land a little bit in May and June for a handful of readings with a couple other Algonquin authors and, if all goes according to plan, free beer. I’ll be adding details as I get them to the Cardboard Gods “book tour” page.

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Cardboard Books: The Year in Reading

December 29, 2008

When I’m not working or sleeping or staring at baseball cards or the television, I’m reading or walking to the library to get some more books. I guess there are a couple other miscellaneous activities I engage in now and then, but that’s pretty much what my life boils down to.

This year, for the first time in my life, I kept track of what I read. Good thing, too, because if I hadn’t done that I’d have surely forgotten most of the books that passed through my brain. I forget most things that happen to me. Whole years go by in a blur.  But at least this year I know what I read.

I’d like to keep this brief, just pass along a few titles that stood out to me and turn it over to you all for thoughts on any books you’ve read this past year that stood out. I’ve already got a stack of books waiting for me in 2009, but I always like hearing suggestions on what I should add to the pile. (I have an annoying habit of not getting around to following people’s suggestions for years, but a few baseball books mentioned by readers in comments on this site—The Celebrant, False Spring, The Greatest Slump of All Time—did make their way into my reading list for 2008.)

One thing my list-keeping told me was that my reading basically breaks down into four major groups: fiction, sports, music, and the rereading of favorites. So here are my 2008 highlights from each category.

Favorite Revisitation of a Personal Favorite
On the Road: the Original Scroll, by Jack Kerouac

This 2007 publication may not actually qualify for this category. The scroll, in fact, is an altogether different book from the previously published classic, one of my all-time favorites and maybe the most important book, personally speaking, that I’ve ever read. The scroll is more direct, more honest, wilder. Allen Ginsberg got it right in his first reaction to the scroll years ago, when he called it “dewy.” The real question for me is, when I go to revisit On the Road again in a year or two, which version will I turn to? I think I might go for the Scroll.

Honorable mention in this category goes to Bruce Jay Freidman, one of my all-time favorite guys. A year would not be complete without a dip into one of his classic novels from the 1960s and early 1970s. This year’s selection was About Harry Towns, a sad and hilarious novel about a middle-aged man adrift in the coke-addled early stages of the Me Decade.

Favorite Music Book
This year I read and enjoyed an oral history of the Replacements, a short book on the greatest album of the 1980s, a bio of Townes Van Zandt, and two books on Dylan (one about the making of my favorite Dylan album, another a song by song analysis), but the one that stood above the others was a biography of Iggy Pop called Open Up and Bleed. I timed the reading of the book perfectly, finishing it just in time to diverge briefly from my daily rituals to see The Stooges in concert for the first time in my life.

Favorite Sports Book
I mostly read baseball books this year, and my thoughts on a few of those books have shown up on this site (if you’re interested in seeing those appreciations, type “Cardboard Books” into the Google search window on the right-hand sidebar and they should all come up), but the top book for me was one about soccer, of all things: Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby. It’s probably pretty obvious to anyone who reads this site that I’m interested in tracing the connections between sports and personal life. Hornby did a great job of doing just that for his own life, and while his season-ticket-holding version of being a fan is a lot different than my own perpetually-distant, fantasy-glutted, past-haunted version, his story shed a lot of light on my own, giving me more conviction than ever in my belief that a life on the sidelines is not a completely worthless life after all.

Favorite Fiction Book
OK, before I get to my favorite fiction book of the year, which in any given year is going to be my favorite book of the year, a couple honorable mentions.

First, a salute to Australian writer Tim Winton. He was my favorite “discovery” of the year. It’s pretty silly to consider him a discovery, since it’s not exactly a secret that he’s one of the best fiction writers in the world, but the sad fact is I hadn’t heard of him before this year. I read a couple of his books this year, The Turning and Breath, and loved them both. The first is a book of interconnected short stories about working class people in a somewhat desolate coastal region in Australia; the second is a coming of age novel in the same setting.

Second, some shout-outs to the novels that yanked me all the way out of this world and into that other world behind the page: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Netherland (the only book I read all year that actually came out in 2008), and The Road. I read a lot of good books this year, but these were the ones that stood out in their ability to pull me into their worlds, which after all is what I’m most looking for when I read. It sounds like I’m looking for escapism, but why would I want to escape, for example, to The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s horrifically convincing gaze into the apocalypse?

I’m not sure why, but maybe there’s something in all us readers that wants to connect with a wider, deeper current of meaning than the one that we’re connected to for most of our waking hours. I know I’m always feeling better about things if there’s a good book bouncing around in my knapsack.

Anyway, my favorite book that I read this year was actually the first book I read in 2008: Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. I’ve already mentioned this book at some length during my long Born in the USA series, so I guess I’ll just wrap things up, finally, and turn it over to you.

So how about it, what were some of your favorite reads this year?

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Cardboard Books: Dirty Water

November 7, 2008
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The gripping new novel Dirty Water, coauthored by mystery writer Mary-Ann Tirone Smith and her son, Jere Smith, begins inside Fenway Park in the midst of the Red Sox’ 2007 championship season. I was, of course, instantly hooked. But I can’t say that I was surprised. As a grateful fan of Jere Smith’s rabidly passionate and generous blog, A Red Sox Fan from Pinstripes Territory, which brings readers along for the ride (with copious photos, videos, and pointed descriptions) every one of the many times he goes to cheer his voice hoarse for the Red Sox, I would have been surprised if the book had opened anywhere but Fenway. (Smith, using the name of his blog as a commenter name, shows up in Cardboard Gods comments from time to time, most fittingly in terms of the discussion here as a keen-eyed detective of the moments depicted in baseball cards featuring action shots.)

From that opening scene, in which a newborn in seemingly dire health is mysteriously abandoned in the Red Sox clubhouse, the well-plotted, plausible novel hurtles forward with the help of well-drawn characters and a deep and satisfying sense of setting. The Red Sox themselves show up periodically to contribute to both of these rich elements of the book. The appearances by the players, which if handled poorly would have doomed the book (at least for baseball fans), is handled by the authors with a pitch-perfect ear for how, for example, Jason Varitek would act when confronted with an ill infant in his clubhouse, or what Big Papi would do if a player in the Sox’ minor league system came to him for help in a very difficult situation.

The book also features an innovative way of propelling the action forward by periodically inserting entries and accompanying reader comments from a fictional Red Sox fan’s blog. The blogger in the novel comments on the ongoing mystery that began in the Red Sox clubhouse and offers as-yet unrevealed details, which at times gives the blog entries an ominous feel as the reader can’t help but wonder how he knows so much about the case. Additionally, the reader comments serve brilliantly as a kind of Greek chorus lamenting and celebrating the downs and ups of the mystery (and the Red Sox’ season).

At the core of the lived-in, baseball-saturated world of the novel is the police detective working to solve the case, which comes to involve not only the abandonment of a baby but kidnapping, murder, and international human trafficking. This detective, Rocky Patel, is an excellent character, unusual and compelling, and unshakably dogged in his pursuit of the truth below all the fascinating and grisly murk of the mystery. Because of his magnetic presence, I would have been drawn forward by the book even if it hadn’t so richly and authoritatively portrayed a world in which the Red Sox are as intrinsic to life as water or air. Lucky for me, and for all fans of baseball and of fiction with deep roots in the world it describes, Dirty Water gleams in the glow of the brilliant light stanchions of Fenway.

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Cardboard Books: The Celebrant

July 11, 2008
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Day in and day out, I follow sports. I’m sure even on the rare days when I’ve been unable to fasten myself to some form of mass media outlet—snowed in and batteryless at the unabomber cabin I lived in for a year, say, or backpacking on the Appalachian Trail—I’ve at least thought about sports. About statistics. About lists. About the actions of uniformed strangers. This makes me a fanatic, to use the extended version of the term most often applied to individuals exhibiting my behavior. Another term often used is spectator. So I’m either mentally unhinged or passive or both. That sounds about right. But is that all there is to it?

Eric Rolfe Greenberg offers with the title of his 1983 novel, The Celebrant, a third term to describe those of us whose lives are colored and even defined by our devotion to sports. The book, one of the best baseball novels ever written, suggests we celebrants may have much more at stake in this lifelong passion than we are willing to admit.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Cardboard Books: Black Diamonds

June 25, 2008
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In the 1989 oral history Black Diamonds, author John Holway leads a gritty, fascinating tour through the too often neglected world of the Negro Leagues. Among the many players interviewed are a slugger nearly without peer (Hall of Famer Willard Brown); a forerunner of Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn in the highest level of batting wizardry (Gene Benson); a pint-sized flamethrower that some say was every bit as fearsome as Satchel Paige (Dave Barnhill); and one of the greatest competitors the game has ever seen (Chet Brewer, pictured here). As in the oral baseball histories of Donald Honig and Lawrence Ritter, the greatest pleasure in Holway’s book is getting a sense of the distinct shape and character (and characters) of the game as it was actually played. It was a whole different world in the Negro Leagues, with shorter rosters and longer, more perilous road trips forcing the players involved to not only be more well-rounded, worldly, and tenacious than their white contemporaries, but also making them, in general, more passionate and innovative in their study of the game. It’s foolish to generalize about any group as varied as the collection of men who played Negro League baseball, but the impression I get from reading Black Diamonds is that no group ever loved baseball more.

A lot of this is all new to me. When I was a baseball-hungry kid I learned next to nothing about the subject. Sometimes Topps included cards that celebrated the more distant reaches of the history of the game, but there was never anything about the Negro Leagues; the baseball encyclopedia I pored over made little or no mention of the Negro Leagues;* and the baseball books from the nearby college library only included enough information to make me think of the Negro Leagues as a shadowy, somewhat backward wilderness, a place to try to flee. About all I knew about the Negro Leagues was that Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron had escaped (the latter’s escape one and the same, in my mind, with leaving behind the seemingly laughable habit of batting cross-handed).

*(Hey, my first Posnansterisk!) I no longer have this encyclopedia, which disintegrated, and the names of the authors—which were never that important to my stat-greedy kid mind—escape me now, but it was one of the greatest books of my life; I prefer it to others because its focus was not so much on individual players but on highlighting teams and the year-by-year narrative procession of the game (at least the white version of the game), giving each year a title (“The Year It All Became Official”; “Greenberg’s Grand Return”) and offering entire rosters and stats for each team. Does anybody know what book I’m talking about? Does it still exist? And how have I been able to get by without it?)

The only exception to this early general misperception of the quality of play in the Negro Leagues was the idea I got somehow, I’m not sure from where, about Josh Gibson. I was first drawn to him because he was the only professional athlete I’d ever heard of that shared my first name, but what made him more than a curiosity was the number associated with his name. I don’t know where I read it, but somewhere I got the idea that Josh Gibson had hit 800 home runs, a number I believed in immediately because my belief in the truth of all baseball numbers was total; conversely, my inability to grasp a general admiration of Negro League players had almost everything to do with the fact that they didn’t have numbers attached to them, or not enough numbers to make them seem substantial. Nothing like 800 home runs. And since Josh Gibson was the only Negro Leaguer with a number like that attached to his name, he was for many years the only African American from the pre-Robinson years to gain entry into the baseball sanctuary in my mind.

With his book, John Holway has helped expand my conceptions about this rich expanse of baseball history. (Bill James has dubbed Holway’s work “the most indispensable original research [on the Negro Leagues]”; my thanks to Baseball Toaster commenter Eric Enders for providing a heads-up about Holway in an earlier discussion about baseball books.) I plan to keep reading more about the legends of the Negro Leagues, and would love to hear suggestions for further study. I want to read more oral histories, but I also want to get a sense of the wider arc of the Negro League story. I’m talking partly about the people who shaped the leagues, but I’m also talking about the defining contests. It seems to me a great book could be written detailing the ten best (or fifteen best or whatever) games in the history of the Negro Leagues. Because of the more chaotic nature of the Negro Leagues (players constantly on the move, teams and even whole leagues folding overnight), it’s a little harder to get a strong hold on the whole of that history than it is with the major leagues; I think a book looking in detail at a few definitive games (the players, the stakes, the context, the goats, the heroes) would be a way to help provide some landmarks for someone new to the territory. Anyone versed in this history know of any suggestions for that list? The one that comes first to my mind is the 12-inning duel in 1930 between Chet Brewer and Smokey Joe Williams. Brewer recalls the game in Black Diamonds, bemoaning the bad hop that led to the only run of the game in a way that speaks to his own competitive fire and his deep respect for his counterpart, a man he said “could throw the ball harder than any I played against.”

“If that ball had just bounced around the infield,” Brewer says, “we would probably be playing yet.”

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Cardboard Books: A False Spring

May 30, 2008
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“It was a land of horizons.” – Pat Jordan, A False Spring

The first maps of the world I ever studied were the ones comprised of lists of place-names and numbers on the backs of baseball cards. Some of those maps, the ones on the backs of the best cards, contained only the names of cities I knew. Major league cities. Other maps, the ones on the backs of the untested, the mediocre, the obscure, had places I’d never heard of. The bottom line of statistics on every card totaled only the numbers accrued in the major league cities. Accomplishments in unknown towns didn’t count.

Looking at these maps, I began to understand that the world had horizons, edges, and that it was possible to drift beyond the horizon, where nothing mattered. More troubling still was the nature of many of the maps of the least of the Cardboard Gods, where the list of place names flickered back and forth again and again between major and minor, between known and unknown, between counting toward the total in the bottom line and not counting at all. These complicated maps suggested terrain where the borders are impossible to discern. You won’t even be able to tell when you’re walking off the edge of the world.

Pat Jordan should have been one of my Cardboard Gods. Many of the players he played with and against as a young man in the minor leagues made it onto the baseball cards I collected as a kid in the 1970s, but few of them matched his raw talent. He threw hard when he entered professional baseball as a sought-after 18-year-old bonus baby, and he threw even harder when his still developing frame filled out the following year. Like many flame-throwing phenoms, he often struggled with wildness, but on those days when he had command of his pitches he was dominant, nearly unhittable. To that point all the baseball stories that had been told, all the maps of the world that had been made available to baseball fans, suggested that Pat Jordan would one day have a baseball card showing his walk totals and ERA decreasing from year to year as the darker edges of the world receded. He would be featured on a baseball card that had no room on the back for minor league cities, no room for oblivion, no room for doubt.

Jordan was not the first to live a coming-of-age baseball story that went in the opposite direction, toward ever-greater oblivion or doubt, but he was the first to tell about it. In his classic memoir, A False Spring, he provides a map of uncharted territory that remains every bit as arresting today as when the book first came out in 1975. Since that time, narratives about the fringes of professional sports have become more familiar—as I read Jordan’s book I was reminded at times of both Slapshot and Bull Durham. But when these films came to mind (in the former when Jordan describes how all the minor leaguers at spring training would gather in the morning to watch a television fitness show featuring a limber, voluptuous female host; in the latter when Jordan describes his Nuke LaLoosh-like desire to stubbornly blast brainless fastballs by everyone) Jordan’s version of the minor leagues always seemed by comparison darker, more painful, more real.

This is not to say that the book is without humor, or that its sharp, harrowing focus on the failures of a young, unhappy loner precludes a rich and varied cast of characters. We see future career hit-by-pitch-leader Ron Hunt as a teenager who calls every older woman in his life “Mom”; we hear of a player who disappears from the team one day after it was discovered (by a young Phil Niekro) that he’d been cheating his teammates at poker; we get to spend time with a beer-swilling minor league manager named Bill Steinecke, who conducts the following seminar in the middle of a game after noticing that his players don’t seem to comprehend a remark he just made about sex:

“I don’t suppose any of you know what I’m talkin’ about? No, I expect not, You think it’s just push-push and goodbye, huh? Well, Podners, it’s time you got educated. With a woman you gotta do things. Make them happy, too.” And then, while we listened with rapt attention—and the opposing team loaded the bases—Bill gave us our first course in sex education. His course was very thorough, touching all the bases: physical (various positions, unusual acts), anatomical (a description of the female body); medicinal (prevention of disease), and psychological (“Make them happy, too.”) It was very graphic and, at appropriate moments, punctuated by darting little gestures of his tongue, while his eyes, no bigger than Le Suer peas, gleamed. (p. 115)

Of course, the most vivid character of all, thanks to the author’s refusal to varnish anything about his younger self, is the one glowering in the photograph at the top of this post. Throughout A False Spring the young man simultaneously unraveling and growing up at the center of the action comes across as immature, arrogant, even unlikable. Early on, his recounting of his high school career suggests that he cared very little about his teammates, thinking of them as useless background figures in his quest to get a big signing bonus from a major league team. Upon entering professional baseball he expands this general disdain into a complete lack of interest (when he’s not pitching) in whether his team wins or loses; in fact, he roots against the success of other pitchers on the team. Outside the ballpark is not much better, his aloofness setting him apart from townspeople and his teammates, his lack of social skills making many of his rare interactions awkward, even ugly, such as when he approaches two older teammates talking to local girls on the street and asks, loudly, “Who’re the cunts?”

He’s not an easy figure to root for, but you begin to root for him like you would root for yourself. You too were once young, arrogant, awkward, self-centered. You too once thought you’d live forever, that the fastballs would paint the corners, that doubt and oblivion would dwindle then vanish, that the winning would find a way to start and never end.

Off in the distance is the dream, a big league callup, and there are days when you feel young and strong, and those days the dream seems close, a sure thing. Other days, the majority of days, you can’t find the strike zone, you feel yourself getting older, weaker, ever more uncertain, you pass the empty hours roaming aimlessly and alone. Here is the challenge laid down by A False Spring, by all great books: Stop dreaming. Open your eyes.

Welcome to the land of horizons.

***

For more Pat Jordan, check out the recently published The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan, edited by Alex Belth.

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Paul Mather in . . . The Nagging Question

May 21, 2008
  
Early in Hang Tough, Paul Mather, three kids in little league uniforms stop on their way to a game to talk to two brothers who have just moved to town. The younger of the brothers starts bragging about his older brother’s pitching abilities. The three uniformed boys are skeptical, and when the older brother at first refuses to show them what he can do, they begin to mock him. He holds the ball they’ve handed to him. It feels good in his hands. Too good.

I was reading this scene on the subway this morning. I’d read it dozens of times before. Even so, I started to get tears in my eyes.

By this point in the novel, it has become clear that the older boy, Paul Mather, lives for baseball. But there have been hints of a serious medical problem. He’s not supposed to be playing any baseball, not until he gets permission from a new doctor, a specialist the family has moved across the country to be near.

I didn’t think of Hang Tough, Paul Mather during Jon Lester’s no-hitter two nights ago, but the connection between the real and fictional pitchers began to dawn on me the following morning as I listened to an interview with Lester’s father. Until that point I’d resisted the cancer-survivor angle because Lester himself expressed a desire to move beyond it. But Lester’s father marveling about a no-hitter his son threw in high school conjured images of the star pitcher as a kid, the kind of pitcher who might have thrown three no-hitters in little league, just like Paul Mather. And Lester’s father saying that the only thing that mattered was that his son was healthy and cancer-free made me think of Paul Mather’s father, whose melancholy, seemingly overprotective presence provides the novel with an ominous tone long before the word cancer is ever mentioned.

The most telling scene involving the father is the scene that I started describing above. In the end, Paul gives in to the temptation of the ball that feels so good in his hands. He starts pitching, just lobbing it at first, but soon he unleashes his entire awe-inspiring arsenal. He stops when his blazing pitches have made his catcher’s hand red and swollen, but he’s on the brink of going even farther, of walking off with the boys to their game. His father stops him by calling his name and telling him to come back inside. But what’s telling about the scene is that his father, according to a feeling Paul gets, had “been standing there for some time watching.”

He wants to protect his son, keep his son from hurting himself, yet he can see the joy his son is getting from playing the game he was made to play. Below is Paul himself describing that joy, from just after unleashing a breaking ball so nasty the catcher couldn’t handle it.

Monk came back with the ball. He held it. “I guess I’ve seen enough.”

“No, you haven’t,” I said.

I was bitten. It had been a long time since I had pitched, and I wasn’t going to stop now. I hadn’t wanted it to start up again, but now that it had started, I wanted it to go on and on and on . . .

I was beginning to feel in the groove. I was sweating. Sweat lubricates a pitcher. It gets all his moving parts working together. I was beginning to get a rhythm. It was like I hadn’t taken a year’s break at all. This was what it was all about. This was what you lived for and why you lived.

I first read the Hang Tough, Paul Mather when I was eight or nine years old. I’d read other baseball books before—in fact, other than Spiderman and Fantastic Four comics, baseball books were all that I ever read—but I hadn’t fallen in love with any of those books. Hang Tough, Paul Mather was the first. The story’s striking familiarity drew me in instantly. Like me, Paul Mather was one of two brothers. Like me, he was an outsider, part of a family that was new to their town. Like me, nothing was more important to Paul Mather than baseball. But the vital difference in our life stories was what drew me in even further. Here was a boy who lived for baseball who was having baseball taken away.

The book was so important to me that after I lost the copy I had as a child I bought another copy somewhere. But some years after that, my aunt, an elementary school librarian a few towns away from the town where I grew up, found a book with my name in it in a pile of books the library was giving away. The favorite book of my childhood had found its way back to me.

What was your favorite book as a child?

 
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Interview with Cait Murphy, author of Crazy ’08

April 30, 2008

  

“Maybe it was just a ball game. But it didn’t feel that way.” – Cait Murphy, Crazy ’08

I was recently asked to name my ten favorite baseball books. Despite never veering from my lifelong habit of reading about baseball, my list has remained the same for quite some time, so I immediately rattled off what I thought was my impenetrable murderer’s row as if I was reciting the alphabet. I may as well have pounded my fist on a podium as I answered. My immortal list! It shall never change!

A few days later, I started reading Crazy ’08, Cait Murphy’s electrifying tale of the 1908 major league baseball season. The narrative of her insightful, irreverent, illuminating book barrels forward like a high-speed train through a wonderland—you want the train to slow down so you can study the wealth of details flying by, but you can’t help charging ahead to see what’s around the next corner. Even before I was finished I knew the book would be hurtling like that train, or like Ty Cobb, spikes-high, into my personal top ten. I haven’t yet had the privilege of speaking with any of the other authors on my list, but happily for me the newest member, Cait Murphy, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, the 1908 season, and her own history in the game. Before turning to the conversation, here’s a brief glimpse of the riches of Crazy ’08, from a description of the moments before the season-ending game between the Giants and Cubs that would decide the greatest of all pennant races.

Larry Doyle is the first Giant regular to take the field. The youngster gets a warm round of cheers. He has had a good year . . .Not long after Doyle, a tall, hunched figure comes into view: It’s Merkle. Poor Fred gets a distinctly cooler welcome—an abrupt silence that speaks volumes. He has lost weight these last two weeks, and is a basket case. The pictures of Merkle as a rookie show a bright-eyed young man, looking out at the world with an optimistic gaze that Norman Rockwell might have painted. After 1908, every picture carries its own shadow. “Man is born broken,” wrote Eugene O’Neill. Merkle, the pictures testify, got broken. (p. 264)

Q: You start your book by saying that 1908 is the “best season in baseball history.” After reading the book, I have to agree. Can you say a few words to back up this claim for anyone who has yet to have the pleasure of reading Crazy ’08?

A: It’s the combination of a great year between the lines (both pennant races go down to the last day; the Merkle game and tons of great games and funny incidents); great personalities (Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb are all in their prime; Walter Johnson has his first good year and Cy Young his last); plus developments off the field. Of the latter, the most important, I think, is construction of Shibe Park, which opens in 1909. It is the first modern baseball stadium, and a huge leap forward for the game.

Q: You compare a baseball season to a Dickensian novel, and one of the great pleasures of the book is getting to meet the vivid cast of major and minor characters that collaborated on the unforgettable season. Who are some of your personal favorite minor and major characters from that season, and why?

 

A: I really like Jimmy Sheckard, who was an outfielder with the Cubs with a rather waspish sense of humor, and of course Germany Schaefer of the Tigers was regarded as the funniest man in baseball. I have a soft spot for Bugs Raymond, who gave up fewer hits per inning than Matty – and lost 25 games for the wretched Cardinals.

Q: Practically every paragraph of the book is bursting with rich, lively details, and yet the book never bogs down into a dry recounting of facts, the details always feeding the story. You obviously did a tremendous amount of work uncovering all the details. What sources were most helpful in gathering these details? Also, was it difficult to incorporate the avalanche of facts and anecdotes into a focused narrative?

 

A: Believe it or not, I left a lot out! The most important sources were newspapers and magazines of the era, particularly the NY Herald and the Chicago Tribune; Baseball magazine; Sporting Life and Sporting News. I put together a detailed chronology using all these sources (and others) that allowed me to see at a glance what the different papers were saying on the same day. That was the core of the research.

Q: Besides the details, the most arresting feature of the book is the authoritative, salty, funny voice, which helps bring the past alive in ways that few historical books are able to. Did you have the voice for the book from the start of your work on it, or did you discover it gradually as you went along? Also, was this voice inspired in any way by the entertainingly colorful sportswriting style of the early twentieth century?

 

A: Well, my family says that when they were reading the book, they laughed because it sounds very much the way I speak; so I think I came by the voice honestly. I very much wanted to stay away from the hushed-reverence school of baseball writing.

Q: I’m interested in hearing a bit about your own history in the game. Were you a big baseball fan growing up?

 

A: Yes. I’m a Mets fan. Like many people, I inherited the love of the game from my dad, who grew up not far from Wrigley, where his upstairs neighbor was Gabby Hartnett, the great catcher. He moved to NY as a boy, rooted for the Giants, then transferred his allegiance to the Mets when the Giants left for California. So I grew up in a Mets house. I now live in New York City, and have tickets for 14 games this year, which for me will be a record.

Q: What do you remember about your first major league baseball game?

 

A: It was 1969 and going to a game was my birthday gift. It turned out it was Cap Day, though, and the only seats we could get were way, way up. My parents were concerned that I would be disappointed. I was not – just enchanted by the whole thing. I wore my best outfit, and seeing that expanse of green bowled me over.

Q: You were one of the first girls to play little league. How did you do?

 

A: I was a scrappy second-baseman; average for the league.

Q: What is your favorite little league memory?

 

A: Well, our team wasn’t very good; I think we went something like 3-10, so winning our first game.

Q: Did your interest in baseball history start at a young age?

 

A: Yes. I was about 10 when I read The Glory of Their Times for the first time, and something about that really struck a chord.

Q: Do you have a favorite book about baseball history?

 

A: The Glory of Their Times and Babe by Robert Creamer

Q: In your book I was interested by, among many other things, the description of fan behavior in 1908. In what ways would you say fan behavior and the way fans follow baseball now differs from 100 years ago?

 

A: Fans are much more partisan now; they root for the home team, and would never consider applauding a nice play by the opposition. (I think the Phillies fans take this too far; I was revolted earlier this season, when they cheered when Jose Reyes got injured – he hit his head and could have been seriously hurt). Also, today’s stadiums are much more tightly policed, so there is less room for spontaneity. Sometimes a good thing – harder to throw bottles and punches – but perhaps a little too much.

Q: One of the themes of the book is that baseball left its childhood behind in 1908. The embodiment of the crueler connotations of this transformation is the teenaged Giants reserve, Fred Merkle. What was life like for Merkle after his baserunning error helped hand the Cubs the pennant?

 

A: Merkle was a solid ballplayer; he played for another 15 years or so, hearing the term “bonehead” regularly. He retired to Florida, had some difficult times (including the “B” word) but I think found some solace when he returned to NY for an old-timers game in 1950—and was cheered. No question Sept 23, 1908, was a life-changing moment for Fred, and not in a good way.

Q: It’s now 100 years since the Cubs last won a World Series. What do you think Frank Chance might say about such a painfully long drought?

 

A: I couldn’t print it.

Q: What do you think about the Cubs chances this year?

 

A: Intriguing team in a weak division; they should make the playoffs, and then it’s a crap shoot. The key may be Kerry Wood.

Q: From what I’ve seen here in Chicago, though the Cubs fiercest rivalry is with the Cardinals, Cubs fans still seem to loathe above all other teams the National League squad from New York. Conversely, from my years of living in New York, I saw that Mets fans harbor no particular ill will for the Cubs. Why do you think this is in 2008, and was there any trace of a similar unequal dynamic in 1908?

 

A: In 1908, there was no question that the Cubs and Giants were baseball’s fiercest rivalry, and it worked both ways. Today, you’re right, Mets fans have no particular animus for the Cubs, probably because the Cubs have never been much of a threat.

Q: Do you have any plans to write another baseball book?

 

A: Not at the moment; I am working on another book, this one about two 19th century NY lawyers. I am not opposed to writing a baseball book, but have not come up with a subject. Ideas are welcome!

(First published in 2007, Crazy ’08 is now available in both hardcover and paperback.)

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